Source: UC News
By Chris Pasion, graduate assistant to The Graduate School.
This driven UC alum is on a mission to build a more equitable, sustainable Cincinnati.
Rashida Manuel has a passion for social involvement and community service that is simply unparalleled. “I guess I would say that it comes from my family,” she reflects. Her mother was a social worker that instilled a social-conciousness in her from a young age. “There was a community service class at my high school… I took it twice," she says between laughs. "I just loved anything that had to do with service. When I got to UC I tried to continue that and it is what I’ve have been doing ever since”.
Rashida completed her undergraduate degree at UC in Journalism with minors in Africana Studies and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She stayed at UC to complete her master's degree in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies before beginning work in community outreach at a Fortune 500 company. “I liked the work, but I wanted to get back to working with students.” This desire led her back to UC’s campus where she found a group of impassioned, mobilized law students working tirelessly on a very special operation: the Ohio Innocence Project.
“The Ohio Innocence Project is really cool because they work to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted in Ohio," Rashida explains. To date, the Ohio Innocence Project has freed 28 people who were put away for crimes they did not commit; collectively, they have served over 525 years on false charges. She continues, "The law students are the ones doing the bulk of the work on that. I started there as the executive staff assistant.” After a few months, Rashida was promoted to program and outreach manager. In that role, she oversaw the Ohio Innocence Project University (OIPU) Program, which was designed to get students throughout Ohio educated and engaged about the advocacy efforts at the Ohio Innocence Project. The program's outreach stretched to six different campuses across the state.
When asked to reflect on how it feels to watch someone walk out of the courtroom after serving, in many cases, decades of false imprisonment, Rashida becomes pensive. "I guess bittersweet would be the best way to describe it. There’s a lot of bitterness there, because you can be so angry that someone went through something like that so unjustly," she answers slowly, taking time to hang onto each word. Her tone changes. "The sweetness is them being released and being able to see the lives that they create for themselves afterward. It's always bittersweet."
Ricky Jackson, who served 39 years before being exonerated, is an exceptional case of making up for lost time. Rashida's eyes light up when she talks about him. "Ricky had spent over half his life in prison and to see the way he was able to come back from that – you know, obviously you can’t forget 40 years – is incredible. His ability to forgive is amazing." Ricky's story can best be told in his own words; he was a guest speaker at the 2015 TEDxMet event at New York City's Metropolitan Art Museum, the same year he was released from prison. His speech is not one of bitterness or resentment; Ricky seems at peace and happy to move on with his life. The title of his presentation is "Finding Freedom in an Art Museum".
After Rashida concluded her work at the Ohio Innocence Project in December of 2017, she began to set her eyes on a new kind of advocacy: environmentalism. She accepted a position as the director of public engagement at Green Umbrella, an environmental alliance that is working to transform Cincinnati into one of the most sustainable metropolitan areas in the country by 2020. Their approach is two-fold: 1) bottom-up - to assess the needs of local communities and work to address them through education and advocacy, and 2) top-down - to educate and support large corporations in downtown Cincinnati in pledging to facilitate sustainable business practices.
Much of Rashida's work at Green Umbrella consists of community outreach and engagement. She is focused on creating a more equitable, socially-just environment for people from underrepresented communities. "We are trying to look at how we can expand the message of what we are doing to communities that are often left out of the conversation," she says. Avondale is one of the communities that they have focused on lately. "What’s important is to learn about the community and partner with organizations who are already there doing work." Rashida learned that Avondale is a food desert; they have no local grocery store. What they do have are several community-led gardens that are working to combat the food shortage." To help give these gardens visibility, Rashida worked to educate Avondale community-members on these opportunities and to show that there are sustainable, healthy options available to them.
Regarding environmentalism on the local level, Rashida offers that the best ways to live sustainably are to "find innovative ways to solve the needs here in the community that you’re in and to be more local in your perspective". This is the core of the work Rashida and Green Umbrella are doing to bring Cincinnati into a greener future; she has high hopes that their efforts will play a role in helping Cincinnati to become a sustainability hub for the rest of the nation to strive towards.
Rashida stays busy to say the least; her advocacy efforts stretch across many disciplines. Outside of her work on the Ohio Innocence Project and Green Umbrella, Rashida spends her time volunteering for various advocacy groups around Cincinnati, including Planned Parenthood, the Ohio Women's March and others. She also remains involved on UC's campus as an alum by serving as a member of the advisory board for Friends of WGSS (Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies). This gives her the opportunity to work as a colleague to some of her former professors. "I can’t get away from UC and I love it," she beams. Her first job at age sixteen was for UC's Continuing Education program and she "felt a connection with the campus even back then... I feel that in some way I will always be connected to UC."
Despite all of her impassioned, mission-oriented advocacy work, Rashida makes it clear the most important thing to her is family. "Really what is important to me is spending time with family and friends. I try to bring them along with me in whatever work thing I’m doing too." She sees a passionate social-conciousness beginning to surface in her daughter that reflects the values Rashida's mother instilled in her as a child. "It feels good, my daughter is 14. It’s great now that she is at the age where these things have been infused in her and now she’s a little activist too." Cincinnati is in good hands with people like Rashida working tirelessly to make it a better, greener, and more equitable place for future generations to come.